By Dr David ClarkeThe release of the fifth tranche of UFO files by The National Archives has been widely covered by the UK and international media.
It didn't surprise me that many led with the ludicrous story about UFO sightings in the vicinity of former Tory leader Michael Howard's home in Kent shortly before the 1997 General Election.
The basis for the claim was that assorted people saw lights in the sky and "a large triangular object" hovering above a field near Folkestone one night in March that year. Examining the details closely, the link between the "UFO" and Howard was, to be generous, a little tenuous. A UFO enthusiast was quoted by the BBC as saying that the craft didn't appear to be interested in the girl who saw it "[which] left me wondering if its purpose had something to do with Mr Howard."
Quite what that means I've no idea, but that is what this entire story amounts to. According to the MoD file on the incident (a whitewash, of course) Howard wasn't at home at the time, there was no security alert and nothing unusual was seen on radar - which suggests the UFO was most likely a perfectly ordinary low-flying aircraft.
So if aliens were involved, they hadn't done their homework as Howard was out on the campaign trail. Perhaps they were actually looking for his colleague, John Redwood, who is frequently caricatured as "Mr Spock".
Coupled with Ann Widdecombe's declaration that there was "something of the night" about Howard, this story was a gift for the press: "Was Michael Howard buzzed by aliens?" asked BBC News Online), whilst The Guardian ran the story on its front page with the headline: "Earthlings, take us to your leader...of the opposition."
Inevitably, extraterrestrial interest in Mr Howard was top of the agenda when I was interviewed by John Humphries on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday morning. The BBC had spoken to Howard, who had said he had never taken the story seriously.
Far more interesting, I told Humphries, was the account in the files describing RAF gun camera film of UFOs seen by MoD official Ralph Noyes at a secret screening in 1970.
Some newspapers did cover this intriguing anecdote, along with my comments linking changes in UFO shapes with depictions of advanced aircraft in film and media, from the "flying saucers" in 1950s B-movies to the black triangular UFOs reported from the late 1980s when photographs of the USAF Stealth fighter and B-2 flying wing were first declassified.
This line was used to full effect by the BBC on their World Briefing and by Channel 4 news , which quoted me saying that either the aliens were watching our TV shows and adapting the shape of their craft in response, or there was a link between popular culture and what people reported as UFOs.:
"It's impossible to prove a direct link between what people are reading and watching and what they report as UFOs," I said, "but one interpretation could be that the latest advances in technology may be influencing what people see in the sky."And finally...the podcast I recorded for The National Archives' launch of the latest set of UFO files is now available on YouTube and has had 23,000 views so far. My favourite comment is the one from AristotleP who said: "Dr David Clarke is a government sponsored UFO debunker."
Of course, it's been said that you haven't made it in the wacky world of UFOlogy until someone claims you are working for the CIA or MI5.